Anthony Nield’s Top 10 of 2011

Anthony highlights his DVD and Blu-ray high points of the year…

.article_full img {padding:0px 0px 0px 10px;}As much as I love reading (and compiling) year-end ‘Best of’ lists, I have to admit that, on occasion, the Blu-ray and DVD-related ones can miss out on one important aspect. For years now we’ve been used to the array of special features our favourite discs offer, but if a particular short film or documentary or television episode is featured amongst the extras, it has a tendency to be forgotten once the Top Tens come into play around mid-December in favour of the overall package. With this in mind the following selection isn’t so much my favourite releases of 2011, but rather my favourite individual inclusions of 2011. Two features are present as I would find it hard to justify a year-end list without them, though for the most part this is a look at the standout shorts, documentaries and television episodes that found their way onto DVD and Blu-ray this year regardless of the bigger package…

Birth of a Nation (as featured on Tales Out of School)

Network deserve a special mention this year for releasing two highly unexpected Blu-ray packages. The first was a welcome rediscovery of Ron Peck’s 1987 feature Empire State, crammed full of extras and looking really rather wonderful in restored and remastered high definition. The other was a collection of David Leland teleplays that initially screened under the umbrella title of Tales Out of School. Televised over four consecutive weeks during the summer of 1983, these standalone dramas saw the actor-cum-screenwriter take on the education system. One of them, Made in Britain, which starred Tim Roth and was directed by Alan Clarke, has become well-known and something of a cult-ish title leaving the others languishing in obscurity. Yet each more than stands up almost thirty years later, especially Birth of a Nation. Directed by Mike Newell and starring Jim Broadbent, this is a stark look at a failing comprehensive school that refuses to pull any punches. Indeed, it feels just as topical today, and not simply because it culminates in a riot…

My review of the Tales Out of School set can be found by clicking here.

Coeur fidèle

There were two silent film releases that really stood out. Both were released onto Blu-ray by one of the UK’s most consistent labels. Both looked absolutely astonishing considering the material we were watching was almost a century old. Both had a new score that complemented the film perfectly. One was Coeur fidèle and came to the UK courtesy of the Masters of Cinema label. The other was The Great White Silence courtesy of the BFI. Both really should find a place in this list. But Coeur fidèle was – out of the all the films I’d seen during 2011, both old and new – perhaps the finest I watched all year. And so it comes out tops. But do try and watch on a double-bill with The Great White Silence. They make the combination of high definition and classic cinema an absolute no-brainer.

clydefro’s review of Coeur fidèle can be found by clicking here.

Days of Hope (as featured on Ken Loach at the BBC)

The best boxed-set of the year, no contest, was Ken Loach at the BBC. It made Cathy Come Home available on disc in the UK for the first time since it’s old BFI edition went out of print. It also gave us an insight into some of the more unexpected films Loach had once lent his name to. The End of Arthur’s Marriage, for example, was a curious blend of nouvelle vague-isms and Brechtian musical. Also present were a wonderful pair of complementary plays, The Price of Coal, that foresaw the ‘men at work’ narratives of later features Riff-Raff and The Navigators. But most welcome of all was the reappearance of Days of Hope, Loach’s epic 1975 series that traced the unrest of the working classes through the 1910s and 1920s. It was televised just once and never emerged onto VHS, so for many of us this our first and only chance to finally sample its excellence. Indeed, it even overshadowed another long-awaited gem in the set, 1965’s Up the Junction.

Guiseppina (as featured on Lunch Hour)

When the BFI released James Hill’s 1959 feature Lunch Hour as part of their Flipside series this year, they paired it with a trio of the director’s short films for Shell. These three miniatures were all made in colour and designed solely to promote their sponsor. Yet, owing to their unfussy artistry, they also took on a separate life as ‘Trade Test’ films, ie shorts that would screen on the BBC during the early days of colour transmission at those times when no regular programming was on. Guiseppina, a wordless Spanish-set affair, was reportedly screened 158 times over the years and as such holds a strong nostalgic pull for those of a certain age. It’s also the most charming film I’ve watched (and re-watched, and re-watched, and re-watched) all year, plus it looks shockingly good on Blu-ray. I do hope that ‘Trade Test’ cult-ists are aware of their presence on the Lunch Hour disc. The main feature is wonderful piece of mature late-fifties filmmaking. But it’s amongst the extras that we find the real gems here.

clydefro’s review of the Lunch Hour Blu-ray can be found by clicking here.

Mirror Mechanics (as featured on Siegfried A. Fruhauf: Exposed)

The vast majority of this top ten wouldn’t be in place were it not for the sterling efforts of particular labels. We’ve reached a point in the production of DVDs and Blu-rays where we know that we can place our trust in Masters of Cinema for a reverent handling of cinema’s classics, or the BFI for previously unheralded gems of British cinema, or Network for long-forgotten cult television items. When it comes to experimental cinema, still no-one does it better than Austria’s Index label. (Although LUX here in the UK released some superb packages this year, especially their three-disc John Smith set.) Index slowed down a little this year, with only four discs released, but the quality remained just as high. The standout for me was Mirror Mechanics on their Fruhauf disc, an eight-minute re-jig of an unidentified Canadian thriller. Scenes and images are repeated and twinned whilst an electronic soundscape courtesy of Jürgen Gruber ups the tension. The end result is a fascinating play of horror conventions and norms, and perhaps even a 21st century Rose Hobart. Were it not for Index I’d likely never have seen this film, perhaps never heard of it, and that’s exactly why these specialist labels need to continue.

My review of Siegfried A. Fruhauf: Exposed can be found by clicking here.

Oss Oss Wee Oss & Wake Up and Dance (as featured on Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow)

A cheat as I’m highlighting two films here. For the second year running the BFI have produced the least likely set of the year. In 2010 it was their MisinforMation disc which paired Mordant Music’s industrial soundtrack with cut up public information films. For 2011 it’s Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow, a two-disc set devoted to folk customs and ancient rural games. The DVDs encompassed a century’s worth of material, with the earliest inclusion dating back to 1912 and the most recent having been filmed in 2005. Pretty much everything on this set was an eye-opener, but two stood out in their own right as simply great pieces of cinema. Oss Oss Wee Oss was made by famed folklorist Alan Lomax in 1953. It has rough edges and switches from colour to black and white and back again. Yet it manages to get under the skin of the strange customs it is recording (the May Day celebrations of Padstow in Cornwall) to become something strange in itself. Wake Up and Dance, made three years earlier, is more conventional in its conception. Essentially we have a travelogue through Stratford-Upon-Avon in full colour but without voice-over. It simply takes skips along from place to place, taking in the local colour, a dance or two and even a dream sequence. It isn’t quite so strange as Oss Oss Wee Oss, yet it manages to convey just as much of Britain’s peculiar quirks.

My review of Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow can be found by clicking here.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade: Episode Two

There were two Sixties television rediscoveries for me this year, both thanks to Network. The Strange World of Gurney Slade was one, and The Tyrant King the other (a children’s thriller set in tourist London that was accompanied by plenty of proto-prog-rock and directed by Mike Hodges). Gurney Slade edges it as here we find Anthony Newley at his peak. The humour is as strange as the title suggests, both timeless (thanks to its uniqueness) and ahead-of-its-time. Never is this more evident than in the second episode. The popular opinion is that the final instalment is the best, such are its darker edges and post-modernist touches. But number two wins it for me thanks to Newley’s distinctive take on love and relationships in a manner that recalls a black and white Annie Hall made for British television in pre-swinging London. Newley also appeared on two other UK discs this year: one, Don’t Ever Leave Me from 1949, is an entertaining little picture which he steals entirely even though only a teenager; the other, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, should be avoided like the plague.

Les’ review of The Strange World of Gurney Slade can be found by clicking here.

The Tree of Life

I’ve yet to make my mind up about The Tree of Life – it’s one of those films. Much of it is really quite remarkable, much of it dazzling, and much of it has stayed with me. Indeed, no other film this year has had quite the same impact on me and certainly none of 2011’s productions. Furthermore it’s Blu-ray rendering is simply amazing and for that alone would probably earn a place on this list. Nothing quite looks or sounds like The Tree of Life and it’s a wonderful sensation to come across cinema that can still do that. The nearest experience was watching Coeur fidèle, from 1927, for the first time.

Noel’s review of The Tree of Life can be found by clicking here.

An Untitled Film (as featured on Requiem for a Village)

The Tree of Life, such is the quality of its presentation, is probably the perfect demonstration. But if you haven’t got time to show off a two-hour-plus feature, then why not try David Gladwell’s nine-minute short from 1964, An Untitled Film. Black and white images are slowed down to 250 frames-per-second and set to an expressive electronic score by Ernest Berk. They repeat over and over, not so much in a search for a narrative but rather in purely poetic sense. This cinema in awe of the image and that translates perfectly to a beautiful high definition transfer: smoke, steam, dust, debris and water travelling at a snail’s pace whilst we watch on in slack-jawed amazement.

My review of the Requiem for a Village Blu-ray can be found by clicking here.

Vienna Tramride (as featured on Vienna 1900: Pictures of a Metropolis)

This disc, and this particular short film, are exactly why lists such as this one need to become a little more commonplace. Pictures of a Metropolis was put together by the Austrian Filmmuseum to coincide with the Vienna 1900 season that ran at the Neue Gallerie in New York throughout the summer. The disc was available either from their shop or the Austrian Filmmuseum’s website and that was it. At only 40 minutes in length perhaps it didn’t deserve a proper fanfare anyhow. And yet the five short films it contained, each filmed shortly after the turn of the last century, served as a fascinating time capsule. This was truest for Vienna Tramride, recorded in 1906, a simple ’phantom ride’ through the capital that’s vivid in detail: the architecture, the people, the minutiae of everyday life. Pleasingly the accompaniment was a simple improvised piano score by Elaine Brennan that refused to impose itself on proceedings. We could simply watch, and wallow in, this journey into the past.

My review of Vienna 1900: Pictures of a Metropolis can be found by clicking here.

Anthony Nield

Updated: Dec 22, 2011

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